Here we are on the cusp of another school year, my 41st in the classroom. I’ve eclipsed the 38 years my mother taught, and each fall I think of her and how she taught and raised a child and helped my father and maintained a home. I can’t recall ever hearing her complain. She stayed up late, marking papers after my father and I had gone to sleep. She had breakfast ready for us the next morning. She cooked supper once she was home from school in the evening. She did our laundry on Saturdays and cleaned our house. I tend to grumble from time to time about how much teaching takes from me, then I think of my mother and how she did all these things—the parenting and the housekeeping enough for a full-time job—and also taught, and I try to remember what a privilege it is to be able to do what I always wanted to do, and to do it for so long. I’ve taught undergraduate students and MFA students and Ph.D. students. I’ve taught in low-residency MFA programs and at various writers’ conferences. I’ve also taught community groups through libraries and writing centers. I’ve been blessed to be privy to so many people’s personal stories as well as those that have come from their imaginations. I’ve taught them what I can. We’ve talked about characterization, structure, point of view, detail, and language. With enough consideration and practice, everyone can learn the techniques common to the craft of storytelling. The question is to what end? What story do you have to tell that comes from your heart?
It’s easy to learn how to construct a narrative. Whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction, we already know much more about storytelling that we might think. We’ve all spent our lives telling stories. We know how to tell stories about things that happen that are out of the ordinary. We know how to begin with a once-upon-a-time, how to introduce complications, how to build interest until a climactic moment, and how to offer a resolution. But do we know how to apply these storytelling techniques to stories of emotional complexity? Do we know how to tap into the complicated layers of the human heart?
Maybe this is the one thing I can’t teach—the courage it takes to go to the uncomfortable places—but I’ve spent years and years believing I might just be able to offer people doorways into the stories that only they can tell, the ones that resonate with the splendor of being a particular person at a particular time in the midst of specific circumstances that speak from the heart. For years, I’ve used an exercise that asks people to recall pairs of shoes they wore when they were young. I invite them to begin a freewrite with the words, “I was wearing them the day. . . .” and then to tell a story of something from their pasts that still resonates for them. The shoes are just the trigger to get them to a story that they’ve never been able to forget. I ask them to think about the emotional complexity of the story. “How many conflicting emotions did you feel?” I ask. “These are your touchstone moments,” I say. “The moments that still haunt you, that keep you up at night, that can never be resolved, that beg you to write from the emotional fire they bring.”
After 41 years of teaching, here’s what I know. It’s easy to skate by with a reliance on technique, but that technique will only take us so far. To write the stories that people will always remember, we must write from the heart. We must tap into our experiences to find the luminous moments when we felt, and felt deeply, opposing emotions. Life is short. Let’s spend our time writing about what matters to us. This isn’t to say we fiction writers need to literally dramatize moments from our own experiences, but we do need to utilize the emotional complexity we’ve learned from those experiences. “Of all that is written,” Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood, and thou wilt find that blood is spirit.” Exactly. The blood of the heart.